Disruptive Insight editorial comment, Issue 5

A round-up from Rapid + TCT 2017
My Editorial comment for the previous issue of Disruptive Insight was submitted the day before I travelled to Pittsburgh to attend Rapid + TCT and published while I was away. To say it struck a nerve is an understatement, and much of the pushback I received in person. Thankfully, I am still around to report on what was an insightful and busy event.

In that piece, I focused on sensationalized marketing activities across the 3D printing and additive manufacturing (AM) industry and the real danger of user cynicism. Marketing is an essential part of any successful business—generating attention and sales is key to survival and growth. But marketing in an industry that is experiencing such strong growth with increasing numbers of competitors can be tricky and demanding and can lead to hyperbole and exaggeration. That’s where the problem lies, and I hope the debate continues.

As I looked down on the Rapid + TCT show floor from the glass-sided bridge that crosses over it, it struck me how this type of event is, fundamentally, a massive marketing platform. It offers a way to get companies’ messages out directly to potential customers one-on-one, as well as to wider audiences via a growing press corps, some of whose members can also get quite competitive. Competition itself is not bad—it drives progress and innovation—but it can trigger bad behavior.

The first day of Rapid + TCT was all about information—the show floor was still being built up. Workshops and tutorials ran all day, with a heavy focus on 3D software and AM for medical applications. There was a very high concentration of knowledgeable and skilled medical people all sharing and updating their peers. It was inspiring.

The main conference event kicked off after lunch with a four-hour keynote session featuring some of the leading lights in the AM industry. SME, the co-host of this event, and America Makes were prominent during this session and described the tremendous growth both organizations are experiencing. It became a recurring theme.

During the keynote presentation by Mickey McManus, Autodesk’s chairman of MAYA and Research Fellow Office of CTO/Future of Learning, more themes were teased out, specifically co-creation, machine learning and skills development, the moving boundaries between the digital and the physical worlds and the opportunities available for early adopters. Mickey asserted that with 3D software and 3D printing, ‘You haven’t seen anything yet, we’re still just at the beginning.’

A fast-paced keynote from Independent consultant Todd Grimm rounded up what’s new in 3D printing and AM, with a nod to 3D scanning too.

Prior to arriving in Pittsburgh, I had two must-attends on my radar. One was the panel session that rounded up Monday’s conference session and brought together some industry giants— Fried Vancraen, (chief executive officer (CEO), Materialise); Vyomesh Joshi (CEO, 3DS); Greg Morris (Additive Technologies Leader, GE Aviation); and Stephen Nigro (President, 3D Printing, HP).

For me, Fried stood out, not deviating from his firm belief that the value of 3D printing and AM always lies in meaningful applications. Greg, like Fried, has a long and successful career in the AM industry. Now at GE, after it acquired Morris Technologies, he is the dominant force behind the LEAP engine nozzle production application of metal AM. It is the go-to application for explaining the current advantages and potential of AM in terms of topology optimization, light-weighting and qualification. The main take-away on which the panel concurred: the industry needs to come together to progress standards.

Tuesday morning began with a truly surreal moment when some slam poetry, about manufacturing apparently, was delivered prior to the early keynote session. I do get that the organizers are going for ‘cool’ delivery and audience interaction, although this struck me as trying a bit too hard.

This session was all about metal AM, with presentations by Philippe Cochet of GE and Ric Fulop, CEO of Desktop Metal (DM), with a panel session featuring three companies that DM is engaging with.

DM was definitely the darling of Rapid + TCT—the company made a huge splash and generated an equally huge amount of attention. I got a few moments with Ric, who showed me some of the parts and briefly explained how the ‘easily removable’ supports and parts can be designed for uniform shrinkage. Because he was run off his feet, Jonah Myerberg, DM’s chief technology officer and co-founder ended up answering my questions. His answers are published in this issue of Disruptive Insight.

DM’s processes have been developed by some very clever people, they are progressive and there is definitely a ‘secret sauce’ involved that is not in the public domain. However, I am also certain that there are limitations with this process, particularly for production applications.

The other notable announcement from DM actually came during the Stratasys press conference—a partnership agreement between the two companies that will support an aggressive go-to-market strategy for DM via Stratasys’s reseller channels.

Stratasys used Rapid + TCT to host a major press conference. Unfortunately, most of the good stuff is off the record, but we’ll get to that. The headline was the introduction of Stratasys’s Continuous Build 3D Demonstrator. This follows the Infinite Build and the Robotic Composite 3D Demonstrators that the company unveiled mid-2016. These are not, yet, commercial systems and there is no pricing or timeline for shipping provided. It’s more like a public beta test, whereby the company is willing to demonstrate its direction and partially lift the lid on its R&D activities.

My one slight complaint is in the name. ‘Continuous Build’ is perhaps a little deceptive. In 3D printing this implies a conveyer belt approach, but that is not what this 3D demonstrator is about. The Continuous Build concept is all about automation and modularity. The 3D printing element of it—Fortus quality, no less—is actually just an enabling function. The automation is controlled by an innovative cloud-based architecture that is linked to multiple ‘cells’ that can vary in number and geographic location. The goal is continuous production capabilities, whereby each individual cell is fed print jobs with minimal operator intervention with automated part removal and intelligent control for queue management and load balancing, courtesy of Stratasys’ GrabCAD infrastructure. If a print fails, that job will be routed automatically to the next available cell, again without operator intervention. The platform is wholly scalable from three cells upwards.

At the press launch, Stratasys had three key customers on hand to explain different volume production applications: In’Tech Industries, the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), and FATHOM. It all made a great deal of sense and clearly illustrates Stratasys’ holistic approach to providing production solutions for manufacturing applications—and not just in the aerospace and automotive sectors. The company’s horizons are much, much broader than that!

Off the record, there is a general consensus that the company has made some mistakes in the past. But I also picked up on a determination to learn from those mistakes and build from them positively. The metal connection with DM is also strategic for the long term, and there is a lot more still to come from SSYS with the demonstrators.

HP continued to drive its market activities for multi-jet fusion (MJF) with a triple announcement at Rapid + TCT. The company announced a new partner for its ‘open platform’ for materials development, namely the chemical company Henkel, which joins BASF, Evonik and Arkema among others. HP also revealed extensive global sales channels with 30 partner companies that will become resellers of the multi-jet fusion platforms. In addition, HP is working with a number of experienced 3D printing service providers. In the same week, Materialise announced it has started offering production services on its two MJF platforms, which were still behind locked doors a few weeks ago.

Show highlights
It was only at this point that I got to spend a brief time on the show floor. Some of my technology highlights are here:

I was really interested to get deeper insight into the 3DEO offering. There is some crossover with the DM narrative here. Specifically, it is a new, low-cost metal 3D printing process, it uses MIM materials and is innovative and disruptive in nature. The process itself is intriguing. It is, at first glance, a powder bed binding process. However, the nature of the binder delivery is absolutely key and there is a hybrid approach using a subtractive tool that precisely cuts away at the defined geometry every few layers. The team is open about the limitations of MIM materials, particularly in terms of shrinkage and densities, but they are demonstrating some impressive results.

Another new, low-cost (120,000 USD) metal 3D printer on show at Rapid + TCT was the Xact Metal XM200. This is a small, portable powder bed fusion process with a build volume of 127 x 127 x 127 mm, a 250 W Fibre Laser and layer resolution down to 20 μm. As yet, the material palette is small—the platform can work with 316L Stainless Steel and Inconel 718 Superalloy. However, titanium and aluminum composites and maraging steel are under development. The low-cost metal market is expanding dramatically and the other players—OR Laser and  Mark Forged—were also at Rapid + TCT.

Of interest to users of the stereolithography (SLA) process is a new system coming from Cideas. There are currently no specs on this platform, but some intriguing teasers from CEO Mike Littrell about his new company Paxis, which has developed a new approach to 3D printing with resin. He says there are opportunities for increasing printing speed, scalability and intelligent resin consumption, without huge vats of resin. Jason Lopes left Legacy Effects to work here, which speaks volumes too. One to watch, for sure.

On company news and developments there were Rapid + TCT announcements from a number of industry incumbents. Notable among these were the new materials from EnvisionTEC. Talking to Sarah Webster, it was clear that material development remains a key focus for CEO Al Siblani. New materials were also unveiled by SABIC.

FormLabs introduced its new Form Wash and Form Cure solutions with the goal of reducing post-processing times. 3D Systems and Optomec both released upgraded systems too.

I got the chance to meet with Andy Snow, EOS’s US vice president (VP) and talked a lot about industry and company growth. Interestingly, Andy highlighted how GE is still a dominant customer of EOS. This is not surprising, seeing as the LEAP engine nozzle is qualified and produced on EOS machines. There are some rumors (not from EOS) that this is in the process of changing, following the acquisition of Concept Laser by GE Aviation. That said, it’s going to take at least 12 months for a switchover and those LEAP nozzles are still in production.

Carbon was also highlighting its new systems, with the team wearing Adidas trainers with 3D printed midsoles. There’s no denying it—they looked cool. The company also demonstrated a new material, flexible polyurethane, which is available via Sculpteo’s 3D printing service.

Other conversations I had during my time in Pittsburgh include making 3D printing more ‘ordinary’-business compatible, education, women in engineering, post-processing and in-process quality control.

About Rachel Park

Rachel is a passionate advocate of additive manufacturing/3D printing technologies and the industry that has sprung up around it. However, as the hype and hyperbole has gathered momentum, her aim is always to offer a reasoned voice in the midst of inflated expectations and to cut through the noise in order to provide a realistic outlook of how things are.